One of our favorite aspects of city life is that you can sense activity and space all around you. Whether it’s the people strolling the sidewalks or traffic in the streets, the life of the retail spaces along the sidewalk, or the many activities that go on inside buildings far above, there’s life everywhere. Many times, however, we overlook the life beneath our feet. There are myriad tunnels and vaults and sewers and who knows what else beneath us throughout the city. In larger cities like New York, you can hear and feel the gust of wind below from sidewalk grates as a subway car passes and sometimes you can see steam rising from the sewers. Life beneath the street, then, completes the urban theater. We’re completely surrounded.
Last week, we noticed that someone apparently forgot to switch the lights off in one of West Main Streets subterranean vaults. It’s still on as of tonight and offers an interesting glimpse into the spaces we walk over every day. These vaults appear to house transformers or some other piece of heavy-duty equipment. Many of the old buildings in town extend far under the sidewalk and sometimes right out under the street. These vaults once served a very practical purpose when these buildings were built: they allowed for delivery of coal for heating the structures. Many of the ornate iron grates and covers seen throughout the older areas of Louisville allowed a coal truck to simply dump an order of coal directly into the basement vault where it could then be shoveled into boilers and furnaces.
These vaults have been modernized and rebuilt of concrete, but many older vaults are still made of stone and feature massive arches that support the world above. Perhaps in one distant day in the River City, we too can feel the rush of air and the clanging of steel as a train rushes by under our feet. In the mean time, take a peek into one of the many vaults around town and wonder just what you may be walking over.